Wednesday, February 16, 2011

How to Buy the USDA Recommended 4.5 Cups of Fruits and Vegetables for $2.50 Per Day

As part of its 2010 dietary guidelines released on January 31, the USDA recommended that the average American eat approximately 4.5 cups of produce per day. Broken down a bit more, that’s 2.5 cups of vegetables, and 2 cups of fruit. In a study released days later by the USDA’s Economic Research Service, researchers concluded all 4.5 cups could be purchased for between $2 and $2.50 per day.

Reactions on one major food blog ranged from supportive (“[I] like that they are promoting the fact that eating healthy doesn't have to expensive.”) to skeptical (“Where the hell are they shopping?”) to outright critical (“God, the USDA is full of such bull****”).

While I think the ERS researchers are correct with their $2.50 number (more on that in a minute), some of the skepticism is merited, for three big reasons:
  1. They used food prices from 2008. A certain economic meltdown makes those numbers highly suspect today.
  2. Among the vegetables counted towards the $2.50 total are white potatoes and corn, starchy foods not exactly known for their vitamins and minerals. Also included is iceberg lettuce, which has the rough nutritional value of licking a rock.
  3. Juice is counted as produce, though the USDA itself admits, “Although 100% fruit juice can be part of a healthful diet, it lacks dietary fiber and when consumed in excess can contribute extra calories.”
With that in mind, for the huge majority of us who don’t live in food deserts, is it still feasible to pay $2.50 for 4.5 cups of produce per day? How? And going one step further, is it possible to purchase a variety thereof? Because anyone can buy seven bananas for $2, but cramming in spinach, yams, berries, and pluots gets a little harder.

My answer to each question is a resounding, “Heck yeah, but you have to do some legwork, first.” To that end, here are some suggestions to keep costs down, and nutrition way, way up.

Buy in season and on sale. These two occurrences frequently coincide, since supermarkets have to move surpluses of in-season fruits and vegetables before they rot. So, pay attention to produce calendars, hunt for bargains at farmer’s markets, and look out for circular sales in larger grocery stores. To wit: I recently scored a 5-lb. bag of gigantic navel oranges (13 in all) for $4.97 at my local Foodtown. That’s $0.38 per orange, which comes out to more than 1 cup of fruit.

Buy whole. Not cut up, drenched in cheese, or (sorry) pulped into juice. Whole fruits and vegetables are almost always cheaper and higher in nutrients than those that have been doctored. The perfect example? The humble carrot. A pound of whole carrots at my old supermarket was $0.89. ($0.66 on sale.) A pound of baby carrots, which are actually regular-sized carrots run through a peeling/whacking machine, cost $1.50. Prep them anyway you like once you’re home, but buy ‘em big before then.

Buy generic, or with coupons if you can nail a better price. While this might not apply to fresh fruits and vegetables, generic frozen and canned produce is generally a big bargain. In studies, many shoppers can't tell the difference between house and name brands, and frequently, the foods are cut and packaged in the same buildings. HOWEVER: if you have dynamite coupons, or can pair coupons with sales, name brands could be the bigger bargain. Do the math and see where you end up.

Buy fresh or frozen first, then canned. Then juice, I guess. While the USDA claims there’s no consistent price advantage of one over the other, I find A) (tomatoes excepted) fresh and frozen produce tastes better than canned, B) fresh and frozen produce is often sold/frozen at the height of growing season, giving it a bigger nutritional impact, and C) canned mushrooms are the devil. (Seriously. You can tell a good pizza joint by whether or not their mushrooms are fresh.) As for dried fruits, try purchasing them in a bulk food store or ethnic market, since they're ludicrously expensive in many big chains. If juice is a necessity (you have children, for example), buying 100% fruit juice is best, and even then, not if you have to sacrifice other means of packing in the produce.

Find a happy medium between big nutrition and big savings. Though tasty and inexpensive, potatoes are somewhat lacking in the nutrient department. On the flip side, berries are powerhouses of vitamins and minerals, but often prohibitively pricey. Don’t forgo either extreme entirely (since a world without blueberries isn’t a world worth living in), but concentrate most of your cash on the guys in the middle. Cruciferae, leafy greens, root vegetables, citrus fruits, stone fruits, and melons are among the many options, and compromise is the name of the game.

Buy from the secret bin. Shoppers will often shy away from lightly bruised fruit, slightly limp broccoli, or salad close to its sell-by date. Their loss becomes your gain, since supermarkets will sell these products at a steep discount. Hidden at the back of many grocery stores is that shelf, which can be summed up thusly: Looks Iffy, Tastes Fine.  Go to it. Learn it. Love it. (Of course, don't buy rotted produce from it. That's silly.)

Buy from multiple markets if you can swing it. Supermarkets within the same general area will frequently offer competing deals to lure customers in the door. In my old neighborhood ("Back in St. Olaf…"), one store would offer a 3/$5 deal on berries, while the place down the street promoted stone fruit for $0.99/lb. Purchasing from both promised variety, as well as big savings. Even if there's not a second market near you, the occasional trip to Trader Joe's or CostCo. (which rarely have sales, but keep their prices consistently reasonable), can mean more produce at a lesser cost.

Before you finish up this article with a, “Harrumph! I knew all this already, and I still can’t afford 4.5 cups of produce on $2.50 per day,” check out the edible cup equivalents in the ERS study. These numbers, averaged across the nation, probably figure more importantly than retail price per pound, since they don’t include inedible parts of produce (corn husks, plum pits, etc.). Here are some examples - mean costs per cup, according to their 2/11 study:

Carrots - $0.25
Navel oranges - $0.34
Pears – $0.42
Sweet potatoes - $0.43
Kale - $0.60
Broccoli - $0.63
Tomatoes - $0.75

So, 4.5 cups - a cup each of kale, sweet potatoes, navel orange, and pears, plus a half-cup of tomatoes – can be purchased for a grand total of $2.16. As mentioned, these prices have probably gone up since 2008, but A) please note we still saved $0.34, and B) some careful shopping should net you much better deals.

Honestly, everything I just wrote/everything you need to know can be found in two documents, both of which merit further study:
Readers, did I miss anything? Do you think it's possible to get 4.5 cups of produce for $2.50 a day? Any tips? Let 'er rip.


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Kayla said...

The most important thing is to get your money's worth out of the produce you do buy. Don't let fruits & veggies go to waste in the bottom bin of your fridge, and use all the parts of the produce that you can.

First: unless absolutely necessary, do not peel your fruits & veggies! Most of the nutritional value is either in the skin or in the flesh just under it. Also, if the seeds are edible (i.e. not going to break your teeth), EAT THEM! Again, that's where the antioxidants live.

Second: I eat a good portion of my daily fruits & veggies (and I'm vegan, so I eat FAR more than 4.5 cups) in smoothies. You can make delicious smoothies with less-desirable (and thus cheaper) produce, such as any bruised or older fruit that may have gone soft in texture, wilty greens, and even the parts you may usually throw out: green tops from beets, carrots and turnips; stems from spinach and other greens; and if you have a very high-powered blender, even orange peels and apple cores!

Sally said...

You might want to rethink the nutrient density of iceberg lettuce. It's not nearly as devoid of nutrients as you might think:

Potatoes and corn aren't bad either. We don't eat in a vacuum. We don't eat nutrients, we eat food and we (usually) eat food in combination with other foods. One thing has a higher nutrient density, another is lower. It all balances in the end.

Adrienne said...

I am sort of not getting the math here... Because you don't by fruit & veg by the cup. You buy it by the pound. I have no idea how many carrots I need to buy if I want to eat a cup of carrots every day. I actually cook a lot and eat a fair amount of fruit and veg, so if this is a mystery to me I don't know how anyone else is supposed to figure it out.

/end complaining.

Ann said...

I'll cop to being a mite skeptical about cheap produce eating. Here in my corner of Kentucky I've never seen carrots, for example, selling for the prices you mentioned. Either I'm not looking hard enough or the lower cost of living here doesn't extend to food. I'll keep my eyes peeled to see which it is.

Kris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kris said...

@Sally: Of course, you're right. Those vegetables aren't lacking entirely in nutrients, and food should be approached holistically. That said, other fruits and vegetables possess far more of the good stuff, and shouldn't be pushed aside.

@Adrienne: It differs by vegetable, which is why the measurements aren't included. You can see them in the ERS report, read the nutritional information on packaged produce, or check sites like Nutrition Data, which lists measurements. Peapod is another good source. (2 lbs. of carrots = 7 1-cup servings)

Marcia said...

This was a totally awesome post. I love thinking about this kind of stuff and doing the math. I did a post on this (ironically, back in 2008!) Still good advice.

chacha1 said...

Very nice article. I think generally, people who complain that produce is too expensive just mean that it's too much trouble. It's so much easier to get 200 calories out of a bag of chips or trail mix than to, you know, peel an orange and bake a yam.

Once you have prepared a given fruit or vegetable once, you ought to have a fairly good idea of how it stacks up on volume/weight.

Most of the time, in nutritionists' advice, a serving size of produce = a cup = the size of the average person's fist. If there's a fist-sized serving of produce on your plate, there you go - it's close enough to a cup.

Then there will be the objectors who say "well my hands are really large/small," to whom I say, get out a measuring cup. This is basic portion sizing, not rocket science.

As to how that translates to price, a lot of the work has been done for you (see links). If a given item costs more in your area, just find an alternative.

But if you really want Cheap + Healthy + Good, you actually do have to do a little work yourself. Frankly, I've felt so much healthier since I doubled my produce intake that I DON'T CARE what it costs.

Anonymous said...

You mentioned it in passing, but frozen is one of the best ways to contribute to lowering your overall food costs. I get the big mongo-pack of frozen veggies from Costco (and they usually come in resealable packs). I wouldn't want to eat frozen veggies every single day, but they are plenty fine as a quick and easy side (thaw for a minute or two in the nuker, then finish up in a saute pan with a little butter/oil and spices).

Also, I hate fruit with a blinding passion (please don't throw anything at me, I know it's a character defect) - BUT - I wouldn't get any fruit if it weren't frozen. A scoop of a mix of frozen fruits and a couple ice cubes in my blender and I can whiz it all into a breakfast smoothie that is almost indistinguishable from fruit juice (which is the only way I will willingly consume fruit). It's a start, for a fruit hater, and it's economical. Bonus.

Donna Freedman said...

1. Buy the overripe bananas and if you can't eat them fast enough, freeze them for some of those smoothies.
2. Dried fruit, especially prunes, can be cheap. I bought two 20-ounce bags of Mariani dried plums (prunes got an image makeover!) for $2.25 apiece because I had 75-cents-off coupons. That worked out to less than 17 cents per quarter-cup serving; I presume that one serving of dried fruits is smaller because they're more concentrated...? Although if you stew them lightly they plump back up. Pretty tasty either way.
3. Look for free fruit. In Seattle that's blackberries, which grow EVERYWHERE.
4. I also put a note on Freecycle saying, "Got fruit? Want jam?" and offered to give jam to people in exchange for the fruit with which to make it. I've gotten plums, pears and apples this way -- and it didn't ALL go into jam, but also into canning jars and into my mouth while it was still fresh.
5. Make vegetable soup. Even if you use canned tomatoes and frozen vegetables vs. fresh, you're still packing a fair amount of produce into each bowl.
OK, now I'm hungry.

Lee said...

I agree with looking at the marked down produce. I do that every week when I shop and if it looks a bit tired I cook it right up that weekend. Browning cauliflower still makes a great gratin or soup!

Autumn said...

While I agree with those who say you can't go into a grocery store and by the exact 4.5 cups of produce and get a variety of items, if you are looking at buying for 4 people for 10 dollars, then it is a lot easier to understand. Many fruits/veggies come in multi-serving sizes (melon, pineapple, frozen veggies) so your $3 pineapple yields 5 cups or so of edible fruit. The $4 bag of oranges or apples has 10 servings in it.

On a related note, I read in the original article they counted dried legumes (Kris's favorite nemesis dehydrated chickpeas!) as a veggie option. In my little corner of the world (and the USDA food pyramid) they are in the meat/protein group.

I guess it also helps to stretch your food dollar when you can define veggie however you want. . .

Jeanie said...

Great post. One of my pet peeves is when people get to whining about how a thing can't be done instead of just trying to do it. Thanks.

Liz said...

This is a really great post - very thought-provoking. I live in a small house, with a small refrigerator. I'll confess that even as an enthusiastic cook I do find it a challenge to keep a variety of vegetables fresh and available for when I want them, simply because they take up a lot of space! I don't work outside the home, though, so, luckily for me I can shop regularly. I can understand people who can't shop often finding it a challenge to feed a family the amount required.

Kris said...

@Autumn: Great point - the $2.50 number becomes much more attainable when you're buying in large quantities for a number of people.

Laura said...

GREAT advice. New Yorkers are infamous for eating takeout, but I'm going to send this to my friends who complain that it's too expensive to buy ingredients themselves and, you know, COOK :)

Sally said...

Kris -- While I agree that the more nutrient dense vegetables shouldn't be pushed aside, I think that these that aren't quite as nutritionally dense are the ones that shouldn't be ignored.

How many people are ignoring these very affordable vegetables because of the well-intended but wrong information that they have "the rough nutritional value of licking a rock"?

I was born in 1949. Iceberg lettuce and potatoes, along with carrots, celery, cauliflower and cabbage are the fresh vegetables I remember most. Everything else was canned or frozen. Corn was fresh only for a short period of time in the summer. I don't remember a consistent supply of fresh spinach until I was well into adulthood. Romaine, kale and other leafy greens have only become available with any kind of consistency in the last 15 years or so. I don't even remember broccoli until I was nearly an adult. While I've eaten canned beets all my life, I had my first fresh one about 5 years ago.

I'm now a single, empty-nester on a very tight budget. In my area, I find that the less nutrient dense vegetables are most often the ones that are most affordable -- even during the height of the growing season. But eaten in combination with other foods, they certainly can be a (big) part of a diet that is more than nutritionally adequate.

I think we're paying too much attention to the nutrients in individual foods and not enough to the whole diet.

I have to agree with Ann -- I can't find produce as inexpensive as the examples given. And I live in Indiana. I've noticed this before when you price foods. The only foods that seem to be consistently less expensive here are eggs and some dairy products.

Sassy Molassy said...

An average (~5.3 oz) potato with the skin contains:

* 45% of the daily value for vitamin C
* 620 mg potassium, comparable to bananas, spinach and broccoli
* trace amounts of thiamin, riboflavin, folate, magnesium, phosphorous, iron and zinc
* 110 calories and no fat.

Kris said...

@Sassy, @Sally: Points taken about potatoes and corn. I should have sold them as short as I did. Perhaps a better route would have been to emphasize those other veggies, rather than dis the cobs and taters.

@Sally: The point you bring up about Indiana food prices - this is definitely a concern of mine. I'd like the information on CHG to apply to everyone, but I often hear reports about higher costs around the country, specifically in the Midwest. Experts are predicting a food price hike, as well, so I'm not sure how to handle it. Any suggestions would be way welcome.

Anna said...

Ok, I have my last produce receipt. In Colorado:

vine ripe tomatoes: $.77/lb
bananas $.55/lb
oranges $.49/lb
cantaloupe $.99 each
lettuce $.99 a head
jonagold apples $.69/lb
grapefruit $.49 each
bunch carrots $.69/lb
blueberries $1.69 pint?
a 1lb bag of baby carrots (so shoot me!) $.99

I spent $18 on all of that, and it should last a week, for 6 people. Grapes just went on sale for $.99/lb and we are SO EXCITED. Usually, I'd also have more veggies, but we weren't in need this week.

Also, to be fair, this is not a major chain grocery store. Prices are slightly higher there.

Sally said...

Kris -- I'll email with ideas.

I just read Anna's comment with the food prices in Colorado. I think I need to move to Colorado! With the exception of bananas, everything is more expensive here. I haven't seen vine ripe tomatoes for 77¢ per pound in years -- not even in season at the farmer's market or produce stands. Try a little more than 3 times that. Maybe some farmer's who sell them from the backs of their pick-ups sell them for that price in the summer. I don't see those farmers and their trucks often (I'm in the city).

I remember reading a blog written by a blogger in California about the price of food there. She mentioned getting avocados 3/$1.00. Occasionally we'll find them for $1/each here, but usually they're about $2/ea.

I don't have time to do it today, but I'm going to price the items in Anna's list at several stores here. I'll let you know the results.

M Family said...

One of the things I wish more people realized is that the savings on healthcare bills etc far outweigh even the more expensive fruit and veggie costs....

tt in nyc said...

Nyc cash concious vegan here- and no one yet mentioned my secret resources, ethnic food shops!! Most towns big or small have an enthnic grocery and I've scored some of the best cheapest (and sometimes just plain mysterious) produce picks in chinatown, indian groceries, etc......not to mention a great meal inspiration seeing what is most popular that day. (And then hit the fresh tofu ladies on bowery and grand for 3 fresh hunks for only $1! Crazy!!)

Sally said...

"Perhaps a better route would have been to emphasize those other veggies, rather than dis the cobs and taters."

I don't think Mother Nature has provided us with real food that is nutritionally inferior, but some are naturally more nutrient dense than others. I think not dissing any real food and emphasizing a variety is best.

Entire societies, particularly in Central and South America, have based their diets on corn or potatoes and enjoyed excellent health.

@M Family -- I agree, but it's very difficult when you're deciding between putting gas in the car OR paying insurance OR buying vegetables and fruit.

Norma Iris Vidal said...

Not much left to say except I agree with Donna, I shop around, but if I didn't spend the money on F&V, what would I buy? I go to a flea mkt & get most of my produce. Last week we went & I couldn't tell you my total amount spent.

Beth said...

Great tips. I always shop the produce and frozen veggie sales and have saved a lot that way. Leftover vegetable scraps can be used for making homemade stock (which is much lower in sodium than commercial varieties).

Jeanie said...

I've been thinking about your post ever since you posted it. Yesterday I had a look at the things around my house and was please (thrilled) to find that I could get 4.5 C for well under $2.50. However, even that becomes a challenge with a large family. I've shared my findings on my blog and linked to your post. Thanks.

Wenchypoo said...

One word: SPROUTS! You can get all the sprouts you can eat, and then some, for just pennies, with all the superior nutrition at very little cost, especially if you grow them yourself.

Here's my solution to the supposed eating crisis: